Published Online: 26 OCT 2012
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.
The Encyclopedia of Ancient History
How to Cite
Llewellyn-Jones, L. 2012. Beauty. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. .
- Published Online: 26 OCT 2012
There are as many conceptions of beauty as there are cultures. Every society defines beauty, predominantly female beauty, according to a set of commonly held criteria operating around the construction of gender, class, and aesthetics which are specific to a time and a locale. The beauty code of women in early modern Japan (artificially whitened skin, elaborate hairstyles, bound body) thus contrasts markedly with some Sub-Saharan ideals of female beauty (painted dark skin, partial nudity, shaved or plucked scalps), but not necessarily with other early modern European fashions (white skin, elaborate powdered wigs, corsets), although the fashionable “look” through which concepts of beauty are articulated (“the mode”) may differ. In antiquity, we find societies accepting common shared ideals of beauty over a wide geographical and chronological framework, although we can also pinpoint more distinctive forms of beauty in almost all individual ancient cultures.
All ancient societies (with the exception of monotheistic Israel) accredit their gods with holding and extolling the ideals of beauty. Divinities by definition are beautiful: Inanna' s beauty radiates like the dawn, and Ishtar too, in a piece of divine self-promotion, declares that, “at my appearance my glow is like the sun's” (see Inanna (Ishtar)). The beauty of the gods (including Homer's (Olympians) is augmented by having shining skin, sometimes of gold, and hair of lapis lazuli. The virgin goddesses of the Greek and Roman pantheons are particularly prized for their beauty, and a common mythological topos revolves around the male (mortal and immortal) desire to sexually possess and dominate the beautiful female. The male gaze falling on the beauty of goddesses is not without its consequences, however: goddesses may well revel in their looks, but the unsolicited ogling of a man invokes their anger and retribution (most famously, Akteon and Teiresias suffer for looking at the naked beauty of Artemis and Athena).
The beauty myth comes to its fullest fruition in the figure of the demi-goddess Helen of Troy. The particular beauty of Helen's face has the power to render kings and warriors speechless; in the myths, Helen's breasts cause an even greater stir: Menelaus, when he caught a glimpse of Helen's naked breasts, dropped his sword. Beauty can be desirable yet destructive. This is best seen in a series of mythological beauty contests found in ancient Greek literature. In Greece, the beauty contest (kallisteion) in which prince Paris has to judge between the goddesses Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite becomes the aition for the outbreak of the Trojan War. Athenaeus of Naukratis(13.554c) records the foundation myth of the temple of Aphrodite Kallipygos which included a beauty contest probably in homage to the Trojan cycle. The Old Testament book of Esther (2:8-18) puts the Jewish heroine in a beauty line-up when she is chosen as the fairest woman in the Persian Empire, a theme echoed in Chariton's Greek novel Callirhoe (5.3), where the heroine goes head to head in a beauty contest in King Artaxerxes' harem.
Ancient texts often speak of beauty in abstract terms, employing rich metaphors and similes (usually drawn from nature) to evoke the qualities of beauty. Egyptian love songs of the New Kingdom offer a vivid set of examples: mouths are lotus buds, breasts are mandragoras, arms are branches, and teeth are pomegranate seeds. The biblical Song of Songs is clearly composed in the same tradition: eyes are doves, hair is a flock of goats, teeth are newly shorn sheep, the neck is an ivory tower, and the breasts are twin gazelle fawns. Sume-rian, Assyrian, and Babylonian descriptions of beauty tend to be less coy in their eroticism: “My vulva [is a] wet and well-watered ground … Your right hand you place on my vulva, the left on my hair.” Greek and Roman literature tends to concentrate on the beautiful power of the eyes and pale skin: “white armed” and “white footed” are commonly used epithets for beautiful women. Thus, Penelope's skin is “whiter than sawn ivory” (Hom. Od. 18.196). Luster is also important for a beautiful image: hair and skin must shine and glow for a truly natural beauty to be noticed. Beauty ideals of luminous paleness are shared throughout all ancient cultures, and therefore the female voice in the Songs of Songs has to apologize to her beloved that, while she is black and, indeed, beautiful, her darkened skin comes from an overexposure to the sun as she worked in the fields beside her brothers (1:6).
In ancient art (Egyptian, Greek, and Roman especially), women tend to be depicted as slim and lithe. The reality must have been different. Given the osteoarchaeological evidence, mummy remains, and our knowledge of the multiple pregnancies or somewhat inactive or secluded lives of many women of various ancient societies, numerous women would have had a tendency to run to fat; it is only an artistic conceit that depicts them slim-hipped and flat bellied. But fatness was not necessarily undesirable: the paleolithic “Venus figures” certainly demonstrate that, and ancient Near Eastern art too celebrates the beautiful, chunky female figure. Images of Greek women in the short-lived genre of blatantly pornographic vase-paintings of the late Archaic and early Classical periods are ample and desirable in their fatness. Throughout most of human history, fat has been thought to be the best feature of the female body, the most desirable and beautiful stuff of all. When the Israelite women of Samaria are criticized by the prophet Amos for their luxurious lifestyles (4:1), he labels them “cows of Bashan”; in other words, well fed and beautiful, albeit stupid and lazy. Greek and Roman prostitutes are recorded as padding their hips and breasts to achieve a more desirable fuller figure (Alexis,fr. 18 = PCG. G).
Needless to say, clothing, cosmetics, and wigs artificially enhanced aspects of beauty. Egyptian and Near Eastern literature put little censure on the wearing of cosmetics (goddesses and heroines are routinely depicted putting on wigs or painting their eyes), but classical texts frequently warn that make-up and wigs are deceptive and aimed at causing confusion. The beautiful maiden Pandora, crafted by the gods as a gift to mankind, and adorned with jewels and fine garments, is seen as the ultimate kalon kakon, or “beautiful evil,” because her external beauty masks a corrupt character. Nonetheless, Greek and Roman women seem to have consulted beauty manuals on how best to achieve a fashionable make-over. Ovid's Medicamina faciei femineae is a rare example (or parody) of what was probably a popular genre.
Male beauty was equally prized. Good musculature, bronzed skin, and well-dressed and oiled hair or wigs are eulogized in many successive ancient societies. Male beauty contests are also attested in Greek society. Sparta displayed the beauty of its men in contest, and in Athens a contest of manliness was held to find the best in bodily strength and beauty (Xen. Mem. 3.3.12).
References and Suggested Readings
- 2005) Before the Muses: an anthology of Akkadian literature. Bethesda. (
- 1974) Love songs of the New Kingdom. Austin. (
- 1985) The Song of Songs and ancient Egyptian love songs. Madison. (
- 1998) The dynamics of beauty in ancient Greece. In D. Montserrat, ed., Changing bodies, changing meanings: 37–54. London. (
- 2009) The big and beautiful women of Asia: ethnic conceptions of ideal beauty in Achaemenid-period seals and gemstones.In S. Hales and T. Hodos, eds., Material cultures and social identities in the ancient world: 171–200. Cambridge. (
- 2009) Helen of Troy: from Homer to Hollywood. Oxford. (
- 1988) Porneia: on desire and the body in antiquity. Oxford. (